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RoadTrip | The Last Overland - an old Defender drives back home from 1955 trip

While the spotlight is on the new Land Rover Defender after its recent world launch, a lonely 64-year old Series I used by a group of Cambridge and Oxford graduates to travel from London to Singapore in 1955 along a route some still consider impassable today, has set off from the Far East to make the return trip to London, carrying a member of the original expedition.

In 1955, Tim Slessor drove a Land Rover Series I station wagon from London to Singapore as part of the six-man Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition. That epic, trailblazing voyage took six months and set the stage for more overland travel expeditions. 

While officially called the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, the odyssey subsequently became known as the “First Overland” and the 2019 rerun in the opposite direction, which started in Singapore at the end of August, is being billed as the "Last Overland".

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For Slessor, this description is certainly apt as, if all goes well, he will be celebrating his 88th birthday behind the wheel of the 64-year old Land Rover used in the original trip – somewhere in Tibet and about five weeks into the 100-day drive to Hyde Park in London.

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Image: Nicholas Enston, Grammar Productions; Anthony Barrington Brown, The Last Overland

"I have a little whisper every now and again, and it says: 'Give it a go before it is too late,'" Slessor, from Wimbledon in London, told the BBC. “It is now or never."

The expedition was “flagged off” on 25 August from the Formula One circuit in Singapore with local enthusiasts escorting Slessor’s vehicle all the way to the Malaysian border. The intrepid travellers are currently in India preparing for the next phase of their journey towards the British capital.

The original trip

The six men on the original expedition – Antony “B.B.” Barrington Brown, Adrian Cowell, Patrick Murphy, Nigel Newbery, Henry Nott, and Slessor – five of them recent Cambridge graduates, one still a student at Oxford, decided to do the trip since nobody had yet made the entire journey by motor vehicle. Cowell had planned the Oxford and Cambridge Trans-Africa Expedition of the previous year but was unable to go, so he began planning the expedition to Singapore. “We were very probably overconfident, almost to the point of arrogant,” Slessor told the BBC for a documentary about the trip. “We were not in any way qualified, but we reckoned we could do it if anybody could do it.”

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Image: Nicholas Enston, Grammar Productions; Anthony Barrington Brown, The Last Overland

The group secured backing from different sponsors, among them the BBC – a young David Attenborough supplied them with film stock – and Land Rover, which provided them two Series I station wagons fitted with winches. The station wagons were very different from the earlier Tickford model, being built with bolt-together aluminium panels, and Land Rover saw the trip as a good opportunity to promote them. The Landies, SNX 891 and SNX 761, were painted light and dark blue and nicknamed Oxford and Cambridge, respectively. In true British style the two jerry cans on Oxford were named “gin” and “tonic”.

The teams set off from London on 1 September 1955, and after flying France crossed Europe, skirting the Iron Curtain via Yugoslavia. Then they crossed the Bosporus in Istanbul. “We had a running joke that this was our last meal before we had leave civilization, but that was blatantly incorrect,” Slessor said on the BBC documentary. “In some ways, we were moving into civilization in the Middle East.”

Image: Nicholas Enston, Grammar Productions; Anthony Barrington Brown, The Last Overland

They visited various sights in the countries they travelled through, putting it on film for the BBC, and in Damascus demonstrated the Land Rovers for the Persian army, which reportedly bought 500 units shortly afterwards … The group then negotiated Pakistan and Northern India before making use of the Stillwell Road into Burma. The road had fallen into disrepair after the war, and they sometimes opted to ford rivers than crossing the bridges that spanned them. 

They became the first expedition to cross Burma by motor vehicle and finished their voyage in early March 1956 after covering more than 25 000 km through France, Monaco, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and finally Singapore.

Oxford found

After the expedition the Land Rovers were returned to Rover. Later in 1956 the BBC aired a programme with the footage from the trip and Slessor wrote a book, First Overland: London-Singapore by Land Rover, published in 1957. The 50th anniversary edition, published in 2005 by Signal Books, also contains a foreword by Sir David Attenborough, who is listed as co-author. 

Meanwhile, Cowell and Newberry participated in the Oxford and Cambridge Expedition to South America between 1957 and 1958 and another expedition – Eric Edis’ from 1957 to 1959 – followed the same route.

Image: Nicholas Enston, Grammar Productions; Anthony Barrington Brown, The Last Overland

On the 50th anniversary of the Expedition in 2006 the five surviving members (all except Henry Nott) recreated the last leg of their journey from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. According to Wiki the five men then did the one thing they forgot in 1956 – following the instructions of Rudyard Kipling to "feed at Raffles" and enjoying brunch at the Bar and Billiard Room and Singapore Slings at the Long Bar.

The two Landies, however, were virtually forgotten. Cambridge went to Iran a few years after the journey was completed, and then disappeared. Oxford was apparently lent to a birdwatching group on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic and from there went to St Helena, where it was in service for three decades before being abandoned. 

Two years ago, York-based Land Rover collector Adam Bennet found the derelict vehicle and shipped it back to the United Kingdom in pieces before it was brought back to driving condition. While there still are questions over its authenticity, Oxford is now roadworthy, and even sports its old registration plate.

Image: Nicholas Enston, Grammar Productions; Anthony Barrington Brown, The Last Overland

Now, 31-year old filmmaker Alex Bescoby, a documentarian and explorer who learned of the prior expeditions while studying at Cambridge, is heading up The Last Overland. Along with Bennett and others, the team include Slessor and his son. 

The new expedition is traversing a different route, one that will still take them through Burma and then cross Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan before cutting through Iran to Turkey. The Last Overland expedition can be followed by visiting www.lastoverland.com or follow them on www.facebook.com/thelastoverland/ or #thelastoverland or @thelastoverland.

Source: www.wheels24.co.za